(August 4, 2012) - On this date in 1862, Circuit Judge Rufus King Williams of Mayfield was on the verge of election to the Court of Appeals, then Kentucky’s highest court.
The August 4 balloting for judges and county officers would be the first statewide election since the war began.
In 1861, Kentuckians had freely rejected the Confederates. But while most Bluegrass State citizens opposed secession, they didn’t like Lincoln and his anti-slavery Republican Party either.
Because so many Kentuckians--including a majority of Unionists--disdained the Lincoln administration, Union Party leaders worried that their candidates might not fare well at the polls.
“Votes these times serve as a kind of Military Census, telling how many loyal men there are in a county, and where there is strength it ought to be shown so that all may see what the state has to rely upon,” the pro-Union Frankfort Tri-Weekly Commonwealth urged, according to The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky by E. Merton Coulter.
The author explained “as it was evident to all that [the election]…would be an important index to the feeling of the state, the military authorities took occasion to influence the result.” (Likewise, Confederate civilian and military authorities tried to suppress Unionism in their territory, notably in mountainous eastern Tennessee and western Virginia.)
Not surprisingly, the Union Party swept to victory in the state elections, though the turnout was light.
Records of the balloting are sketchy. But the pro-Union Louisville Journal reported that Williams collected 626 Graves County votes on the way to his victory. “McElroy” received 92 votes, and the Southern Rights candidate—whom the paper did not name—managed “from 8 to 78 votes.”
Ballard County Judge C.S. Marshall was elected as Williams’ successor. He earned 640 votes in Graves County.
The totals suggest that the Union cause had not advanced very far in Williams' home county. In the June, 1861, special congressional election, Unionist Lawrence Trimble of Paducah won 610 votes to 1,270 for the incumbent, erstwhile Democrat Henry C. Burnett, who ran on the secessionist Southern Rights ticket. (The House expelled Burnett as a traitor.)
In Ballard County, “Uncle Jake” Corbett, an outspoken Confederate sympathizer, lost his job as circuit clerk. But typical of many Purchase secessionists, he returned to elective office after the war. Ballard voters put him back in the clerk’s office in 1866, and there he remained until 1872.
At the same time Corbett began his forced political hiatus, the region’s delegation in the state House of Representatives went from all-secessionist to all-Union.
Statewide, the Union Party had won big in the August, 1861, legislative elections, held when Kentucky was still officially neutral and neither army was in the state. The Unionists boosted their house majority to 75-25 over the Southern Rights Party. In the senate, including holdovers, the Union majority increased to 27-11.
On the other hand, the Purchase, dubbed “the South Carolina of Kentucky,” sent a half dozen Southern Rights men to the House. All of them ran unopposed, except Rep. Jesse C. Gilbert of Marshall County, who easily beat his Unionist opponent, John W. Minter.
The other Purchase winners were William M. Coffee, Ballard County; Daniel Matthewson, Calloway; George W. Silvertooth, Fulton and Hickman; Andrew R. Boone, Graves; and John Quincy Adams King, McCracken.
After the General Assembly voted to embrace the Union war effort in 1861, Unionist lawmakers expelled all of the Purchase house members as disloyal except Coffee, who resigned before he got the boot. On the senate side, the Unionists also expelled Southern Rights Sen. John M. Johnson of Paducah as a traitor.
(Burnett, Johnson, Coffee, Matthewson, Silvertooth, Boone--a First District Democratic congressman after the war--and King all helped organize Kentucky’s rump Confederate “government” at Russellville in 1861. Burnett became a Confederate "senator" from Kentucky.)
The new Purchase lawmakers elected on Aug. 4, 1862, were all Unionists: William Mercer, Ballard County; Leroy Brinkley, Calloway; Elisha Beasley, Fulton and Hickman; Richard Neal, Graves; Wiley Waller, Marshall; and J.W. Boone, McCracken. The McCracken County senate seat would remain vacant until 1863, when Unionist W.T. Chiles would replace Johnson.
- Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The books are being sold to raise money for scholarships at WKCTC. They are available by contacting Craig by phone at (270) 534-3270 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.